Thursday, 8 December 2016

The Tsarina who moved a comma and saved a life

Students are often told to be careful how they use punctuation when writing, but this story - which is supposedly true - is an example of how a comma in the wrong place can make a huge difference to a person’s life.

Tsar Alexander III of Russia

Tsar Alexander III ruled Russia from 1881 until his death in 1894 when he was succeeded by the last tsar, Nicholas II. Alexander came to the throne when his father, Tsar Alexander II, was assassinated. Alexander III ruled as an absolute monarch and was constantly aware of the threats he faced from real or imagined opponents. He was determined not to give an inch in terms of social or political reform.

Given the fate of his father, it is hardly surprising that he sought to clamp down hard on the various protest movements that bedevilled Russia at the time. Punishments were harsh; those anarchists who were not executed were exiled to Siberia, from which only a handful of them ever returned.

Among those executed for an attempt on his life was Alexander Ulyanov, whose younger brother, Vladimir, would in later life take his revenge on the Russian monarchy under his nom-de-guerre of Lenin.

Tsarina Maria Feodorovna

The Tsarina, however, was a very different type of person.

She only became Alexander’s wife by default, in that she had been “bequeathed” to him by his elder brother Nicholas. Nicholas died in 1865 at the age of 21, when he was engaged to be married to Maria, who was a Danish princess (originally named Dagmar). On his deathbed (he appears to have died from meningitis) he expressed his wish that Maria should marry Alexander instead, which she duly did. She therefore became Tsarina, as originally intended, but as the wife of the “wrong” Tsar.

Maria clearly had much more humanity in her than did her husband, who was noted for his dour and cold personality. The episode of the comma would seem to show just how different she was.

The changed comma

The famous event occurred when Maria happened across a document that Alexander had signed. This was a list of supposed traitors and criminals whose fate lay in Alexander’s hands. Against one of the names Alexander had written “Pardon impossible, to send to Siberia”. Maria saw her opportunity to save the life of an unknown prisoner and quickly scratched out and re-inserted the comma. The line now read: “Pardon, impossible to send to Siberia”.

But is it true?

This story is often told, mainly as an object lesson in correct punctuation, but is it really true?

To my mind there are several problems with it. For one thing, who told the story? The change of the comma would have been done in secret, with only the Tsarina knowing that it had happened. She would hardly have let slip at the time that a prisoner had been freed by her action and against the will of her husband. So at what point would she have told the story, and to what end? Granted, she lived a long life (she died in her native Denmark in 1928 at the age of 80), so there might have been other opportunities for telling the tale, but what purpose would she have had in so doing?

Another factor is that the document would have been written in Russian and not English. I have no idea whether a change of comma in the equivalent Russian sentence would work as neatly as in does in English, so that is another question mark against the story.

My own feeling is that it all sounds a bit too contrived, as though somebody had realised that this was a sentence that would illustrate the grammatical point at issue, and the story was written around it as one that would fit the known facts and be believable as it stood.

That said, it is a good story. Whether true or not, it does make very clear that a misplaced comma, whether the error is the result of carelessness or deliberate action, can make a huge difference to somebody’s life!

© John Welford